Fiction | Monsters Make Monsters by Nina Ellis

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from 'The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt', oil on canvas by Rubens

Nina Ellis


Monsters Make Monsters


I was the pretty sister. I was the good one, too. Some people said Jackie was the good sister, but that was to compensate for her moving 7,450 miles away from home to save the world.
___ ‘Next right?’ said Jackie, frowning at her phone in the passenger seat. You mean left, babe, I said in my head. Jackie has never had much of a sense of direction, geographically or in life. That’s why I’d come here in the first place—not to see hippos, like I’d told her, but to get her to reconcile with Mother and Daddy and move back to New York.
___I followed the →Safari Lodge sign onto a dirt road, which led to a line of parking spaces in the jungle. We’d been driving through the jungle for hours, but this patch of jungle was different. Louder. Closer. I pulled into the nearest parking space. ‘Is this what it looked like online?’
___‘Come on, Birdie,’ said Jackie. ‘It’s romantic, don’t you think?’
___My name is ridiculous. I don’t blame Mother and Daddy for everything, like Jackie does, but I do blame them for Birdie. ‘Let’s get the cooler inside,’ I said.
___‘Just a second.’ Jackie opened her notebook. ‘I need this material.’
___She’d been making notes all the way from Lusaka, where she lived and worked at a nonprofit. I could imagine what she was writing. Jackie always based her characters on me—they were always named Kiki or Lulu and had great skincare regimes but no souls.
___I turned off the engine. ‘There’s barbecue meat in that cooler.’
___‘Anyone would think you were the older sister,’ Jackie sighed, but anyone wouldn’t. I’m just the one who can drive. ‘It’s been four months since I submitted it,’ Jackie continued. ‘Do you think I should email him?’
___It meant her latest story. Him meant the editor of Finest American Fiction, some magazine that nobody read. I shrugged. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to get published if you lived in New York?’
___‘No.’ Jackie looked out of the window. ‘Hey, I can do check-in.’
___She’d been making gestures like this all trip to compensate for what she called abandoning me with our tyrannical parents. But Mother and Daddy had never been tyrannical to me. I thought Jackie and I were lucky. We’d grown up in a penthouse overlooking Park Avenue. We’d had maids, cooks, nannies and doormen who called us Miss Birdie and Miss Jackie. In the elevator, we’d pressed the button for 16 to get to our apartment on the fifteenth floor—the buttons skipped number 13 because the architect had been superstitious. I’d felt sorry for the people who lived in 14, the apartment that was actually on the thirteenth floor. They were an elderly couple with two pugs and grown-up children who never came to see them.
___Family is important. That’s why you don’t move 7,450 miles away from home—and that’s why you go visit your sister and try to bring her back when she does.
___‘I’ll come with you,’ I said to Jackie.
___I took one handle of the cooler and she took the other, and we lugged it up the path marked →Reception. Our flip-flops clacked against the flat stones: step, clack, step, clack. As we walked, the jungle dropped away in front of us to reveal a lawn sparkling under sprinklers. A breeze came off the river beyond it, through huts with wide openings in their walls. They weren’t real huts—not like the ones we’d seen in the villages on the way from Lusaka. These were luxury huts, the kind of huts people do yoga poses in on Instagram.
___‘Wow,’ I said. Jackie and I hadn’t travelled much growing up: Mother was too sad and Daddy was always away on business. We spent most of our time with our favourite nanny, Bhakthi, who made us saffron rice and taught us nursery rhymes in Sinhalese. She told us that in Sri Lanka people ate fish eyeballs on sticks, like lollipops.
___Jackie pointed past the Instagram Huts to the river. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘the Zambezi.’

It was dark and hot inside the hut marked Reception. My eyesight blurred and adjusted. A woman in a blue business shirt was smiling at us from behind a desk.
___‘Muli bwanji,’ said Jackie. She was learning Nyanja and felt virtuous about it, you could tell.
___I turned and let myself drift to the other side of the room. I knew how this part would go. First, Jackie would interrogate the receptionist about guides and boats and refrigerating our cooler. Then she would demand sprung mattresses instead of futons. If she didn’t sleep, she couldn’t write. If she didn’t see hippos, she couldn’t write.
___Across from the reception desk, two posters were tacked to the wall. I leaned in to inspect them. Birds of Zambia, read one. Birds of Zimbabwe, read the other. The birds of Zambia and Zimbabwe seemed largely the same.
___‘We cannot compensate you for its being March,’ the receptionist was saying to Jackie.
___‘But by green season you mean wet season, which means no hippos,’ Jackie replied.
___I focused on the posters. Something was moving along the wall between them: a lizard no bigger than my fingernail, its skin a shocking purple. Behind it crawled another lizard, equally tiny and purple, followed by another. There was a whole line of them, streaming away from the bird posters towards a shelf of safari souvenirs. They wove between a collection of plastic animals: a hippo, an elephant, and five lions mauling gazelles. The lizards trickled down the wall and disappeared between the floorboards.
___‘Birdie,’ called Jackie, waving me over to the reception desk. ‘Gwen is offering us a sunset cruise as compensation for the lack of hippos.’
___Poor Gwen, I thought. ‘How generous,’ I said.
___Gwen wasn’t smiling anymore. She led us back outside, to a cluster of lawn furniture overlooking the river.
___Jackie flopped into a chair and kicked off her flip-flops. I sat down on the grass and looked at the Zambezi. We couldn’t hear it from where we sat. It was wide, and the water was slow and syrupy. I closed my eyes and it was like the river wasn’t there at all. When I opened them, a man was walking towards us across the lawn in long, easy strides. ‘Miss and Miss Pandaros,’ he said, ‘for the sunset cruise? My name is Last.’ He spelled it out: L-A-S-T.
___‘That’s us,’ said Jackie.
___‘This way,’ said Last. He gestured to a rocky path signposted →River. We followed him, Jackie in front and me behind. Branches crowded the air above us, and we walked in silence as the path flattened out to a dock. A boat was cleated to it; Last jumped on deck and helped us in after him. ‘May I offer you some beer?’ he asked. ‘Or perhaps some juice?’
___Jackie chose beer and I chose orange juice. Beneath us, the boat’s engine trembled to life. Last cast off from the dock and steered us out into the Zambezi. I glanced at Jackie, who was pretending to be lost in thought.
___Being a younger sibling means being born into your older siblings’ narratives and getting tangled in those narratives for the rest of your life. When Jackie tells her story, she doesn’t start with her ballet classes or her beautiful clothes, or with Mother reading her Dickens before bed every night. Instead, she starts with Mother hitting her and throwing things out of the window. She doesn’t even start with the first time, when Mother tossed her Math homework off the balcony facing Park Avenue. Jackie and I laughed about that afterwards—we told the doorman we’d been playing frisbee indoors. No, Jackie starts with the worst time, the time that made her cut herself off from us.
___I was there, but I don’t remember what happened. All I know is Jackie’s version.
___She says she came home from college for Winter break and Mother asked to see her budget for the following semester. Jackie refused, so Mother tried to shut her in Daddy’s office. She says that she ran for the front door, so Mother tackled her to the ground and bashed her head against the marble floor again and again and again. She says that I pulled Mother off her and called a cab to the hospital, where a doctor wrapped a bandage around her head like a crown.
___But why think about that now? I was as bad as Jackie, dwelling on things I couldn’t change. I shook the whole story out of my head.
___Two white birds were watching us from the riverbank. ‘Those are egrets,’ said Last.
___‘How romantic,’ said Jackie. She made another note in her notebook.
___Last pointed out bird after bird after bird. I tried to keep them straight in my mind: pied kingfishers, pied wagtails, red babbitts, open-billed storks, pied somethings, something-babbits, open thing-fishers, something-billed storks. Then, all of a sudden, there was a splash and two animal heads broke the surface of the water.
___Last shifted the engine into a lower gear. The animals ahead of us seemed to have claws rather than jaws at first—surely no mouth could open that wide. One of them reared further out of the river, exposing its body and muscular shoulders.
___‘Hippos!’ said Jackie.
___Last held up his hand urgently. ‘It is best to stay quiet around wildlife.’
___The bigger hippo bore down on the other, ears flicking forward. The smaller hippo met it tooth for tooth, heaving its opponent towards the knotted bank. Then it withdrew, and both animals retreated. They sank back into the water and became pairs of eyes.
___We sat in silence for a moment, looking at the river where the hippos had been. Last finally spoke. ‘A rare sighting for green season,’ he said, and frowned.

The beds in our tents were futons, not sprung mattresses. Jackie wanted to make a complaint. She also wanted to get another drink, so we crossed the lawn in our flip-flops to the hut marked Bar.
___‘This place better have WiFi,’ said Jackie.
___I checked my phone. No signal.
___Inside the bar, a man was chipping ice off a small block with a large knife. He was white and dressed in safari colours: tan shorts, a tan shirt, a tan name-tag that read Roger, tan sandals and frameless glasses; and he had tan, thinning hair. A fresh cut ran up the left side of his neck, bright against his pale skin.
___‘Gin and tonic,’ said Jackie. She looked around the empty hut. ‘Green season is quiet.’
___Roger shrugged. ‘You’re the only guests,’ he said. He put down his knife and measured the gin into Jackie’s glass. ‘So where are you from, hey?’ he asked.
___‘I work in Lusaka,’ said Jackie, ‘but my sister’s visiting from New York.’
___‘American, then,’ said Roger, ‘not British.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘You all sound the same to me. I can always tell black from white, though. Yes, even on the radio.’
___I rolled my eyes. I wished I were in Cancún, drinking a smoothie out of a coconut.
___‘I’d never have left Zimbabwe if I’d had my way,’ Roger continued. ‘But you’ve got to go where the jobs go, and there’s no trust in old Zim right now. When I was a boy on our rose plantation, back then we had trust.’
___I raised my eyebrows at Jackie. She raised her eyebrows at me. I miss you, I wanted to say to her. And I feel like if you loved me you’d come home. But of course I couldn’t say that—I couldn’t say anything, or Jackie would make a scene.
___She looked down at her phone and up again. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she said.
___‘What, babe?’
___Beneath her fingertips, an email was loading. It was from the editor of Finest American Fiction, and began: Dear Jackie Pandaros, Thank you for sending us ‘Crystal Goes Wild’.
___‘I’m going to be published,’ said Jackie.
___Racist Roger put down the block of ice he was holding. ‘You wrote a novel?’
___‘A short story.’
___‘Ah.’ He tilted his head. ‘What’s it about?’
___I braced myself.
___‘It’s about a poor little rich girl who’s abused,’ said Jackie, ‘so she runs away to Zambia to work for a domestic violence nonprofit.’
___Silence collected around us. Racist Roger shifted from foot to foot.
___‘Abused?’ I said. I couldn’t help it. ‘But that’s not what it was like.’
___‘It’s fiction,’ said Jackie. ‘And anyway, that is what it was like.’
___But it wasn’t. Not all of it. After the marble floor and the hospital, Jackie went straight back to college and never came home again. Mother stayed in bed for months. At first, she asked me about Jackie, but there was nothing I could tell her; Jackie wasn’t replying to my messages either. None of us heard from her for two years, not even when I graduated from high school or when she graduated from college or when our cousin Trey died in that sailing accident.
___After Trey’s funeral, Mother stopped asking about Jackie.
___And then one day, the emails started coming in. Chère Famille Pandaros, Jackie would begin, I have completed another short story. At first, I didn’t read them—until I saw one flash up on Daddy’s phone one morning and saw him swipe it straight into his trash. I went back and opened her emails and the stories attached to her emails, which were about Park Avenue princesses who stole accessories from department stores. How did Jackie know that that was how I’d turn out? I wondered, and wrote her an angry email about it. She replied, denying the resemblance, and I replied to her reply, and before I knew it, we were FaceTiming every weekend.
___‘Mother wasn’t herself,’ I said, putting down my glass of water with a clink.
___‘She may be nice to you,’ said Jackie, ‘but that doesn’t mean she’s not a monster.’
___My stomach dipped, like it always does when I’m about to say something I’ll later regret. ‘Monsters make monsters,’ I whispered. Then I slid off my stool and walked into the night.
___Behind me, I could hear Racist Roger go back to slicing ice.
___The darkness was heavy, brimming with rain. I walked to the chairs overlooking the Zambezi and sank into the one Jackie had sat in that afternoon. I still couldn’t hear the river below me. I couldn’t see it now, either—the night was too dark. I closed my eyes and pictured Jackie in the bow of Last’s boat, making notes in her notebook. Collecting material.
___Maybe it would be best for Jackie not to come home after all.
___One by one, the lights went out in the bar and in the hut marked Reception. I waited in my chair by the river, and watched as two pale shapes moved across the lawn. Jackie and Racist Roger, no doubt. Celebrating her story. Sharing a bottle of gin. I tilted my face to the sky. It was starting to rain. I breathed in and out, and then stood up and headed back to the campsite.
___I found my tent easily. There were only two: mine and Jackie’s. I unzipped my tent’s outer layer of tarpaulin and inner layer of mesh, shucked off my flip-flops and lay down on the futon. My limbs and eyelids were heavy. The rain was getting heavier too, louder and louder on the tarpaulin above me. I tried not to think about Jackie, and failed, and fell asleep.

When I awoke it was still dark. The air was loud with whistles, rattles and a low trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr like a purr. The rain had stopped. I wondered how late Jackie had stayed up with Racist Roger, and then I reminded myself that I was mad at her and didn’t care.
___I fumbled around for my flip-flops and crossed the campsite back to Reception. I don’t know what I was looking for. Someone to talk to who wasn’t Jackie, I guess. But Reception was closed and so was the bar, so I turned towards the path that led to the river. The sun would be up soon, and Last was a river guide; maybe he would be down by the boat. The path was slick after the night’s rain. I walked carefully, shining my phone light ahead of me and watching where I placed my feet—
___And then I froze.
___On the path was a tiny purple lizard, just like the ones I’d seen in Reception the day before. I bent down to look at it, and noticed another, and another, and another and several more: a line of tiny purple lizards streaming uphill, away from the river.
___Where were they going? What were they running from?
___I straightened up and started walking again, slowly and delicately, stepping around the lizards. The path flattened as I approached the dock. I caught my breath. There was someone standing by the boat, as I had expected, but the man wasn’t Last. He was white.
___I hesitated in the shadows of the trees. Racist Roger was facing the river, so I could see him but he couldn’t see me. I watched him cross his arms over his chest and pull off his shirt. Then he stepped out of his shorts. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath them.
___My instinct was to run away—to follow the tiny purple lizards back up the hill to the campsite—but I stayed put, transfixed. Above us, the sky was changing from black to blue. Roger was starting to change, too. The first thing I noticed was his skin. Under the lightening sky, it turned grey and roughened to a hide. Then his head shrank into his body, swallowing up his pasty neck. Then his legs shortened and his chest swelled, and he fell to all fours with a strangled cry. The dock plunged and bobbed under his weight.
___His feet were the only human thing left about him, and then they changed too. His toes and ankles swelled and thickened until they were something between hooves and paws. His toenails were yellow.
___Terror filled my throat. I couldn’t breathe.
___Racist Roger splashed off the dock into the river, leaving his pile of clothes behind him. He sank into the water and became a pair of eyes.
___I took a step back. I thought of the sparring hippos Last had shown us, and remembered the cut on Roger’s neck. This place is wild, I thought, and my stomach tightened. Last time I’d seen Jackie, she’d been with Roger—and now here he was, parting the water with his hideous head.
___I exhaled. I had to find Jackie.
___I turned and ran up the hill, towards the campsite. It was still dark under the trees. I stumbled twice, but by the time I reached the tents, the sun was tipping the horizon. I unzipped Jackie’s tent, outer tarpaulin and inner mesh. ‘Jackie?’ I called, but she didn’t answer.
___I shone my phone light into her tent. It was empty. Her sleeping-bag was gone.
___‘Oh God,’ I breathed. I checked my phone. Still no signal. I turned and hurried back to Reception, my flip-flops clacking against my bare feet. ‘Jackie?’ I called as I tumbled into the hut. Last and Gwen were sitting side by side behind the desk, drinking coffee. ‘Have you seen my sister?’ I asked them.
___‘The other Miss Pandaros is waiting,’ said Gwen. ‘She is in your car.’
___‘In our car,’ I repeated. I glanced at the path to the parking-lot in the jungle.
___‘She has packed your things and settled your bill.’ Gwen didn’t seem sad to see us go.
___I looked down at my feet for something to orient myself by. My toenails were pink. My gold flip-flips were muddy. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen on the dock—but I couldn’t have imagined it either. I was the sane sister, the one with the Finance major.
___‘Do you have someone working here named Roger?’ I asked Gwen and Last.
___They looked at each other, and then back at me. ‘We run the lodge alone during wet season,’ said Last.
___‘Green season,’ corrected Gwen.
___I nodded. ‘Thanks.’ I turned and walked out into the sunshine.
___Here was the path to the parking-lot—the same path I’d walked with Jackie the day before, with the cooler toppling between us. Here was a tiny purple lizard scuttling away from me, into the jungle. Here was our car in a pool of shadow, right where we’d left it. And here was Jackie in the driver’s seat. She smiled as I opened the car door.
___‘Jackie,’ I said, breathless, ‘you’ll never believe what I just saw.’
___I climbed into the passenger seat and pulled her close, but her hair didn’t smell the way it used to. I missed Jackie’s childhood smell. I missed lying in bed when I should have been asleep, listening to Mother read Dickens to her in the room next door. Sometimes I would drift off before she finished the chapter, and I’d have to ask Jackie what had happened on our way to school the next day. Later, I realised that she changed things in her retellings. She gave the Artful Dodger a happy ending in Australia, where he became a wealthy landowner and philanthropist.
___For a moment, it seemed like everything would be okay—and then I realised that Jackie was pulling away from me. ‘Birdie,’ she said gently, ‘you know I don’t like to be touched.’ She put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. ‘Are you alright?’ she asked. Her voice was soft and kind. She didn’t sound like herself. I wished that I could see her face clearly, but it was still dark in this parking-lot, under the trees.
___I nodded. ‘I’m fine.’ It was too hard to explain.
___Jackie turned away from me, towards the steering wheel, and I saw that a cut ran up her neck. It was still bleeding lightly. She turned on the engine and it hit me: Jackie couldn’t drive—and yet here she was, driving. She pulled out of the parking-lot and turned onto the dirt road. Sunlight fell across her hands on the wheel. They began to change, her skin fading to grey.

_

        Nina Ellis is a British-American writer and PhD candidate based in Cambridge and Islamabad. Her stories have appeared in Ambit, American Chordata, Granta, 3:AM and elsewhere, and she is currently writing her first novel.


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